Is It All Relative?
Sunday, March 20, 2011

What is it

We've all heard a disenchanted teenager claim that everything is relative and that there is no absolute morality or truth.  Of course, there seems to be something wrong with that; isn't the relativity of everything then an absolute?  Relativism has appeared throughout philosophy since the ancient Greek Sophists.  Proponents of relativism argue that some central element of thought, experience, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else.  Does that mean that we merely obey a code that has no inherent value?  John and Ken avoid absolutes with Paul Boghossian from New York University, author of Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism.

Listening Notes

Is everything relative? We know that things like taste in food and matters of etiquette are relative. But what about things like truth, knowledge, and morality? Are there absolute normative truths? John and Ken are joined by Paul Boghossian to tackle the question of moral relativism vs. moral absolutism in this episode of Philosophy Talk.

John starts the show by claiming that morality is not relative at all – there is an absolute moral truth. If we argue about morality, we can’t be relativists, because it shows we believe that things are objectively either right or wrong. Ken then asks, what if there was a relativist who acknowledged that there was no absolute moral truth, but just preferred that others agreed with him about morality, and argued for this reason? Ken acknowledges the complexity of the issue, and the two invite Dr. Paul Boghossian to join the conversation. 

John asks Paul why he thinks relativism has become so popular, and Paul presents an analysis of it as a reaction against the colonialist idea of cultural superiority. But when faced with moral atrocities, relativists have a problem, for they criticize the act by appealing to absolute morality. Ken disagrees, arguing that relativists admit certain things are right or wrong for different circumstances, and can still criticize moral codes different from their own - but Paul responds that this characterization of relativism sounds very similar to absolutism. Paul says absolutists also believe different things are right or wrong for different circumstances. However, there is still an absolute fact of the matter. Ken says the difference is that a relativist acknowledges there is no transcendent moral authority to settle moral disputes. He says man will always try and project his own beliefs onto others, just because that’s human nature. Paul points out that an absolutist can still accept that it’s human nature for man to ceaselessly disagree about morality, and in fact claim that man does this in an effort to arrive at the absolute truth.

  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 44:48): Ian Scholes discusses the war on science and the misuse of when applied to social and cultural issues.

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Paul Boghossian, Silver Professor of Philosophy, New York University

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